America’s Long Journey: The Telephone


Nineteenth century (1900 back to 1800)

The Telephone

Nothing romantic or exciting about the telephone. What could be more mundane? At least, that’s how it looks at first glance.

But the more you look at it, the more clearly you see how much that was to come depended on it. It turned every home and workplace into the equivalent of a telegraph office. It gave the individual the ability to contact others immediately, at that moment, without having to leave the room or depend upon a third party such as a telegrapher. At first they could reach across town, which was revolutionary in itself. With time, they learned to talk to different cities, then different countries and even – at great expense and for strictly limited times, at first – via undersea cables to other continents. In our time we saw the telephone networks coupled with radio technology, then with communications satellites, and then with computers. So that now we take for granted a global access that would have been unimaginable even to the 19th century which had come to take revolutionary changes in technology in its stride, as we shall see.

We, looking backward, can see how many future developments were built firmly upon that telephone network. Without a telephone network, no fax transmissions, for one thing, and no internet. And if today’s cell phones function without a nervous system of telephone wires, there never would have been such a thing as a cell phone, let alone an iPhone, if that system of landlines had not existed first. So let’s take a look at how the first aspect of everyday life came to function at electric speeds.

Inventions rarely spring from the labors of only one man; usually they build upon the work of others, acknowledged or otherwise, and sometimes the question of who should get the credit (not to mention the profits) is bitterly disputed. The invention of the telephone is one of those cases, but Alexander Graham Bell is commonly credited as the inventor of the first practical telephone, and this is not the place to pursue the claims of others. Regardless what others may have contributed, Bell was the man who obtained the patent, in 1876, and he was the man who made it into a practical business proposition. Developing commercially practical telephones, adapting telephone exchanges and switching plug boards developed for telegraphy, he developed a hugely successful business. It has been argued that, regardless whether it was Bell who invented the telephone, it has he who invented the telephone industry.

He was Professor of Vocal Physiology at Boston University, training teachers in the art of instructing deaf mutes how to speak. Information on how he came to invent the telephone, and how the telephone operates, is easily found. I won’t go into it here. Suffice it to say that on March 10, 1876, Bell spoke the famous sentence to his assistant, Thomas Watson, “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you.” and Watson answered. This was the first successful bi-directional transmission of clear speech.

In June, Bell exhibited a working telephone at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. In August, he made a call between two points 10 miles apart, setting up a telephone using telegraph lines. In 1878, Thomas Edison invented the microphone that made long-distance calls practical. From that point on, it was a matter of continuous improvement, with various inventors and engineers adding additional features. Already in 1876, Hungarian engineer Tivadar Puskás, working for Edison on another project, invented the telephone switchboard, which allowed for the formation of telephone exchanges, which were soon linked via “trunk” lines. Today’s fiber-optic cable and digital technology are only improvements on this basic framework.

Like most commercial innovations, telephones were expensive at first, and therefore were at first relative luxuries for individuals, being mostly limited to commercial use. By the turn of the century, however, forests of telephone poles supporting dozens of telephone wires were common sights in all American cities. You can imagine the effect of American life easily enough by remembering the effect the internet has had on your own. More input, quicker, with more people. At first a novelty, it became a convenience, then a necessity, with unanticipated side-effects (the decline of letter-writing, for one) and logical (but often equally unanticipated) further developments as one technology was married to another (the public opinion poll, eventually). At first sketchy and rudimentary (for decades, many rural areas would be connected via “party lines” sharing service, each household having a distinctive ring pattern to know that a given call was for it rather than its neighbors), services were upgraded gradually but pretty continuously (as party lines, for instances, became private lines).

Perhaps the most drastic effect was to subtly change America’s sensory mix, in the way that the internet today may be changing us. As I said, nothing romantic or exciting about the telephone. What could be more mundane?


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